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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From doggy to dog: Developmental shifts in children's use of register-specific words


Child-directed language (CDL) features words such as doggy, night-night, and tummy that are rarely used in adult-directed language (ADL). Characteristics of CDL variants, such as diminutivization and reduplication, explain why they may be learned and produced earlier by children. However, it is not yet clear how or when children switch to using ADL equivalents—dog, goodnight, stomach. Through analysis of speech transcripts from CHILDES and the Language Development Project corpus, we show that children significantly increase their production of ADL variants across age, with the average CDL-to-ADL transition point at 2.5 years. Many of the linguistic features that distinguish CDL vs. ADL registers (e.g., lexical and syntactic complexity) similarly differentiated the local speech contexts surrounding CDL vs. ADL variants in children’s input. Notably, these differences emerged even in speech that was primarily child-directed. Learners may therefore be able to capitalize on these linguistic cues to support their discovery of register along with context-appropriate CDL/ADL pair use.

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